Online Falsehoods: Some things are better left unsaid and some laws are better left untouched

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Step into the echo chamber of local politics and you’ll hear the familiar voices of our activists expressing concerns that the government has yet again upped its ante on muffling dissent in Singapore through the implementation of Fake News laws. The paper published by the Parliamentary Select Committee for Online Falsehoods is just a recommendation, yet, there are various postings on social-media that the government is oppressing dissent.

Step out and you’ll hear quite a different story being told by cyber-security experts, technologists and national security strategists on how to deal with state sponsored cyber-attacks. Online falsehood is just a small portion which requires attention, but there are more threats online conducted by crime syndicates, state actors and state-sponsored actors that it is foreseeable in the near future, that the digital economy is exploited, and governments disrupted by them.

How do we make sense of it all? Is our government using the current situation and heightened threat levels to fortify itself? Or are they doing this to stifle dissent?

These are all valid questions and it good to see that we’ve had a vigorous debate around this topic from a revisionist historian, PJ Thum, who posited that the PAP government has been the main perpetrator of falsehoods, online or otherwise; to Dr Cherian George who was less mercurial in his delivery of statement, who said that these laws can be weaponised by future governments.

When Malaysia implemented fake news laws, the first man to be convicted under their new laws was a Danish man who posted on Facebook that the police arrived late at the crime scene. The current prime minister of Malaysia, Dr Mahathir was also investigated during his campaign under the fake news laws for claiming that his plane was sabotaged.

The other argument put forth by NMP Kok Heng Leun is that the existing laws are enough to deal with the situation.

In the last twenty years, the way we consume news and information has changed quite radically. People consume news from various digital platforms. Moreover, news organisations use these platforms to seek news stories from newsmakers posting online.

Fake accounts and fake news sites, either driven by political agenda or with the intent of defrauding the reader with fake online stories just to make a penny or two, pose a serious threat to the good working order of our society.

As a news organisation, the proliferation of deliberate online falsehoods adds a layer of costs to our production. We have submitted a written statement to the parliamentary select committee in support of new framework because if there are new laws enacted on this issue, it is better that we are consulted upon than to be adversarial for the sake of argument.

Also, the current laws are inadequate to deal with the new circumstances – there is an increased threat from state-sponsored actors who deliberately want to destabilise governments and the digital economy. But at the same time, we do not want to see a situation where the politicians in power or law enforcement agencies becoming extremely frivolous and thin skinned that they use the law to defend their honour like what we saw in Malaysia.

There is a deluge of information out there and most times we need to use our common sense to decipher what is true. For example, if you typed “holocaust” on Google search, you’ll find articles that say that the Nazis are innocent, and no Jew was killed in WW2. But we all know that this is not true.

My point is, governments of the day need not counter every theory that is floated by lobby groups and certainly, legislation alone is not the way to go. Sometimes using the court of public opinion to squash a falsehood is more effective. But more importantly, we need to think of this problem more holistically, which means looking at a new media framework, strengthening the capabilities of our existing media organisations and working with technology firms that disseminate news on various digital platforms.

As much as I am for freedom of speech, I operate in a highly complex environment and I’m dealing with various political groups (opposition included) who only provide lip service when it comes to the fourth estate.

So, I say, before you post your next meme or your view of a new conspiracy theory, bear in mind that the Big Brother is watching; and taking a line from the classic Hall & Oats number, “Some things are better left unsaid” and if I can add, some laws are better left untouched and some truth are better left unspoken.

Kumaran Pillai is the publisher of this publication and a Jefferson Fellow of the East-West Centre, USA